How Rachel experienced the Shvil Israel (engl.)
“540 kilometres climbing, crawling, walking, over rocks, in fields, through woods, along the beach, from Dan over Tel Aviv passing Jerusalem to Dvir.”
User Rachel from our INT facebook group made this trip on her own in 2016 on one of the world’s most beautiful, and sometimes hardest, trekking routes. All by foot. And she lightly posts: “Looking forward to the second part”
Here at our message board I want to talk with her about the Shvil Israel and I hope that we can thereby encourage you, dear reader, to gather the strength for your own trip on the Shvil Israel.
As a woman on the Israel National Trail. Rachel in interview with Christian Seebauer:
I really enjoyed getting so many great messages from you. In our facebook group you shared a lot of very personal moments with us. What makes someone just let everything loose, set out and walk such a great distance?
I wish I could provide you with some deep, profound story, but I cannot. At some point, possibly during my last stay in Israel, I heard or read about the Trail and decided to put it on my, not so short, to-do list for Israel.
This november, then, I needed some distraction, as my husband was away for a few months on account of his job and I just thought, hiking would be a great way to spend the time. On the trail I sometimes imagined hiking towards him, as we were scheduled to arrive back home almost on the same day. It didn’t make sense geographically, but helped a lot mentally.
Apart from that, there is nothing more spectacular than the Hula Valley in northern Israel during bird migration. As I am an amateur ornithologist, I enjoy lying in wait for hours behing binoculars or crawling through the underbrush looking at birds for inner joy and scribbling notes.
The whole trip just advertised itself.
Very few women hike the Israel Trail. Up to now!
The Camino de Santiago is by now made by an insane amount of people. Some sources speak of about 270,000 in 2015. Almost half of these (43%) are women. You yourself state that during 540 kilometres of hiking you met only one female hiker? I find that hard to believe…
The only female Shvilist hiking by herself I came across I met at the bus stop in the direction of the trail’s starting point, so not even on the trail itself. On the actual trail, I came across only one other female hiker, but she traveled in a group, not on her own. No female hikers apart from these. It doesn’t seem to be very popular for women, although I haven’t met too many hikers overall, on some days not a single person.
I once asked a trail angel family how many female hikers on their own they have hosted, and they told me women hiking the trail alone are very rare and usually originate from Germany or Switzerland. Unfortunately, they could not provide an explanation for this. When I asked my friend Ifat, who accompanied me on my first two days on the Shvil, about this, she explained to me that she would have been uncertain what to expect in the Arabian villages along the trail and was somewhat afraid on that account, acknowledging the possibility of being influenced by the media about this.
After in several Arabian villages I was taken for an Israeli – obvious by the fact people tried to introduce themselves in Hebrew, a misunderstanding I could not resolve due to a lack of common language – and people still invited me for tea or gave me some free food I told her about my experiences and got her to reasses her attitude. Hopefully, the word gets around.
So, all in all, I gather the lack of female hikers (from Israel as well as foreign) results from a lack of information: The information, that the trail isn’t more dangerous than any other area, no matter what gender or nationality the hiker has. At least that is what I experienced.
Is Israel, or more precisely the Israel Trail, inappropriate for women? Or should one advise them to “just do it”? I myself think that in Israel a woman can get along very well on her own and I would recommend to any woman to just start hiking. But then again, I am just a guy. Can a woman hike the Israel National Trail? All on her own?
Of course she can! The trail is suitable for everyone. Just do it, listen to your inner voice and collect wonderful experiences. This applies to all hikers, no reason to draw a distinction. Anyway, as I already stated in the Shvil facebook group, the greatest danger looms over every hiker on the trail: just staying in one place because it is so beautiful there! Then you have to be very brave to move on.
Many have a wrong picture of Israel
I am really happy that in this message board we can tell others about our experiences and help them find their own views. Nevertheless, everyone experiences things in his own way. My first question, when contemplating hiking or a pilgrimage, always was… fear. Yes, I am quite fearful. I was also afraid before going to Israel and had a hard time finding more positive views on the internet. Are people afraid of visiting Israel? Or are they afraid of voicing their opinion in favour of Israel?
In my experience, most people simply have a completely wrong picture of Israel. They imagine rocket impacts every few metres, a country consisting solely of desert, cactuses, maybe some camels; soldiers, suicide bombers and stabbings everywhere… and so on. I cannot even tell how often I heard the question “But isn’t that dangerous?” No, it’s not! It didn’t feel any more dangerous than anywhere else. I feel safer there than in major German cities. Of course there is crime, I once got my camera stolen out of my bag in Tel Aviv and while hitch-hiking encountered some unpleasent people. But that can happen anywhere, world-wide, and is no reason for general alarmism.
I had no reason to be afraid on my first trip to Israel, as I was then accompanied by a friend, Ariel, a Swiss with Israeli background who I met on a backpacking tour in Thailand. I told him how I always wanted to visit Israel since during school our exchange was cancelled due to security concerns. He then suggested we could meet again in Israel and travel around together. And so we did half a year later. We met in Tel Aviv and got around the country, granting me an insight into the culture by someone who did not only know his way around, but also had family there, spoke Hebrew and was able to point out the cultural details, all in all giving me the feeling of being absolutely safe.
We made camp along the Dead Sea, without any equipment, just lying on the rocks. We crept through the old town of Jerusalem by night and sat on the its wall, with a view over the illuminated city, Arabian music playing somewhere in the distance. Great atmosphere, but unfortunately no longer advisable due to a change in the local security situation.
We rented bicycles in the Hula Valley and got locked inside as we missed the closing hours, epic! We had a great time, but unfortunately I had to head back home because of some family emergency. Still, I knew at that time I would visit again. I’ve sinced been grateful he openend up a whole new world for me. In 2014 I visited Israel for two months, interrupted only by a short trip to Jordan. I mainly came for birdwatching and for visiting Ariel’s wedding, but also to experience more of the country. I utilized couchsurfing and got to know people I’m still in touch with.
Some of them are now living in Berlin and we visit each other. So, altogether, I had a very smooth run experiencing the country. When I talked about this with a fellow birdwatcher who did some organized birdwatching trips to Israel, she complained about the drastic and visible security measures. I had no idea what she was talking about. Barred windows at the hotel? Didn’t have that. Entry into the country? Passed the controls almost instantly. It seemed to me we were talking about two different countries and that left me somewhat baffled.
On the Shvil, I discussed this with some people who invited me to their campfire one evening. Together, we theorized that if you have a certain image of some place upfront, you mainly see things validating that image once you’re there. My image before my first visit was like an empty canvas. I’m still hoping that enabled me to develop an even and fair picture. Sure, public transport is full of soldiers. But that’s because they travel for free when wearing uniform. In Germany, seeing lots of policemen with submachine guns means something has happened. In Israel, it’s usual for them to carry their rifles home after work. So, in the end the guy sitting next to you on the bus wears uniform and carries a gun. But that does by no means hint that an attack is imminent or recently ocurred!
These things you have to find out, first. Otherwise, the general setting may certainly seem intimidating. Everyone concerned with their personal safety can and should stick to the guidelines issued by the Auswärtiges Amt (German Foreign Affairs Bureau). Those are refreshingly factual. On my last trip I accidently acted against them and quickly discovered their reason. Remember: Keep away from Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, especially on fridays. My only really unsafe experience has been there.
I cannot imagine that people are afraid to state a positive opinion about Israel. The travelers I know visit people, cultures, places and wildlife, not governments.
By the way, in general I would consider myself quite anxious. On some encounters with wildlife I was almost frightened to death, e.g. when meeting wild boar. I am just to stubborn to let my anxiety limit what I do, so I just chose to ignore it and concentrate on looking out for real dangers. The boar, for example, didn’t even care about me in the end.
On the matter of anxiety: You’re afraid of cows gazing next to the Trail?
When I served in the Army several years ago, I once had the task to help an injured soldier make the way to the next road in a training area so she could be picked up by a vehicle. We tried to cut short over a large meadow, carrying her over the fence. Out of nowhere, cows came running from all directions, closing in on us! It was traumatizing, like a scene from a horror movie. The cows illuminated by our lights, the urge to flee (impossible because of the injured comrade)! I was supporting the injured while the others tried to fend of the enraged cattle with their unloaded rifles, yelling as loud as they could. The cows came to a halt right in front of us, keeping a close distance, and I am certain we would have been trampled if not for the yelling. When we finally made it to the road, we where mentally exhausted. The next day, we were the most of the company’s laughing stock. Only the rest of our platoon and our instructors were not laughing – they had been on a nearby hill, seeing, hearing and being certain that the cows would make short work of us. Till this day I wonder what got into the animals. Maybe they didn’t like soldiers? This happened almost ten years ago, but it seems to have made a lasting impression on me, although I really do appreciate cows, I’ve been brought up a vegetarian!
So I didn’t react overly enthusiastic to cows at the Israel National Trail. Once, I was sitting in my tent and was afraid because all around me jackals were howling – at that time I didn’t yet know these animals are unbelievably shy, harmless and cute. But then, I didn’t even realize they were jackals, so the howling was rather creepy and I peered nervously in all directions. But only when a cow, a rather large one, showed up and came trotting towards me I panicked and jumped into my tent, sitting their wailing and considering calling someone, preferably Ifat. Just in time I realized I was making a fool out of myself. Luckily, Israeli cows generally seem to be a little more shy than their Bavarian counterparts.
How to find your way on the Shvil…
I myself got lost quite often, but in the Negev desert I was extremely cautious. How did you find your way? What was your backup?
My orientational talent is only rudimentary, but that didn’t matter. The topographical maps in the Saar-book were really helpful and my lucky compass that once led me out of some south-east Asian jungle is always with me.
I also made good use of the Android app for the Trail. That way, I could immediately find out where I was and where the Shvil was. The app was also very handy for finding standpipes not mentioned in the book. I charged my smartphone in supermarkets and backeries along the way. The maps in the book and the app’s digital map are a perfect combination, although the app itself has some room for improvement.
The hospitality in Israel is unbelievable
Along the Camino de Santiago there are hostels for pilgrims. This of course isn’t the case for the Israel National Trail. Where did you stay over night? What are your experiences?
A quarter of the nights I spend in proper beds, sometimes because of the wildfires, the other three quarters in my tent. In Netanya I stayed with my friend Ifat, another time I was picked up along the way, a third time I asked in a village if there was some sheltered location because of a grim weather forecast and immediately received the key for the villages common room. For the other nights in beds I contacted Trail Angels, who live in villages along the Shvil and host hikers. Their phone numbers I got from the app.
Those were great encounters with very different people. The Angels I met not only offered a clean bed and a hot shower, but also offered me to join them for dinner, exchange stories over some tea and wash some clothes and the next day my backpack was full with goodbye-gifts!
The hospitality was unbelievable and sometimes hard not to refuse. One night I stayed in a nicely arranged bunker, another time with a religious family of eigth whose children helped me reading Hebrew. The contrast to the nights in the tent was enormous, but I enjoyed both.
I suppose if you are intent to, you could stay every night in a proper bed, as hospitality is a big thing all over the Middle East. But for me, the tent was an important part, granting independence.
In 2010 there were some severe wildfires in the Carmel-woods, of which I still remember seeing many traces. Now, in 2016, wildfires blazed again. Were you affected?
When the fires started I was just passing Zirkhon Ya’akov and I was able to see the large fire in the northern part of town from afar. But at that time I did not realize what exactly happened there and completely misjuged the severity of the situation. I unsuspectingly entered the town from the south and immediately noticed the chaotic traffic situation, policemen running around everywhere. But apparently, there was no general panic.
My Trail Angel, a nice lady, invited me to have coffee with her in the garden and after a while friends of her joined us. They were unable to enter their house because of ongoing firefighting and were just able to save their dog and take some photos of their garden, completely burnt. Their cellphones were ringing non-stop, half the country seemed to be asking about their well-being and I also received a message from a fellow hiker not to enter the town… a little late, I guess, but the southern part seemed to be safe. Still, you could here the firefighting planes all night.
Another wildfire was discovered and reported by myself while still being relatively small. This was close to Hadera, just a ten-minutes walk from the town’s train station. The emergency call was somewhat of an ordeal, with the operator not speaking English.
I had some experience calling an ambulance in my awful Hebrew, but I couldn’t describe where exactly the fire was located, steadily eating its way into a dried out forest. For two minutes I just stared into the flames and listened to some jolly music in the line while waiting for an English-speaking operator. She wanted to know wether I saw some possible arsonist, but that I didn’t.
I was not required to wait for the fire brigade’s arrival, so I continued on my route. My Hadera Trail Angel, who kept me updated, told me a few hours later that local news said the fire was successfully extinguished. Nevertheless, I was still a little shaken, as I did not expect such a situation. Although, with more than 1,000 wildfires raging in Israel during these days, chances to stumble upon one weren’t exactly remote.
But that I didn’t know by then. This year’s winter came very late to Israel, the country was bone-dry. Statistically, I had to expect seven days of rain during my trip, but in the end there was only one rainfall, on my second to last day! So, a spark could lead to a disaster. Luckily, no one died in the fires, but more than half a million trees burnt down. As I hiked through a burnt forest near Neve Shalom I was close to breaking up in tears, it was so desolate. In another village a woman, who showed me the way to the supermarket, told me she was called in the middle of the night and she and her childen urged to immediately evacuate. Eventually, the fire could be stopped before reaching the residential buildings, but just by a few metres! The signs of destruction were everywhere, but still, it could have been even worse.
In Europe, there apparently was the impression the whole country was ablaze. I got messages asking me wether I shouldn’t return home. The Auswärtiges Amt, on the other hand, just advised to be careful and attentive.
Do you believe in the overall good?
That question is difficult to answer. I always say – and during my trip I also told this those Israelis who couldn’t decide wether they should think of my trip as crazy or as fascinating – that the world just isn’t that bad. That is a notion anyone could get by just watching the news and therefore being confronted by mainly the bad events. Good news just don’t get enough attention.
But everyone should give good things a chance to happen, e.g. by hiking in the Middle-East. This is not meant as a recommendation for naivety, but for sophistication. In 2016, what did most people in Europe take notice of regarding Israel? Countrywide wildfires, some of them possibly arson, tens of thousands evacuated from Haifa, destroyed forests, burnt houses. And now I go and tell about all the great moments and experiences during exactly the same few weeks! So, you should always try and compile your own picture about a place, no matter what image of it counts as the common impression in Europe.
For example, in 2014 I also stayed a few days in Palestine. My experiences there were not all positive, e.g. I would not again hike there alone in the countryside, but those experiences were important and exciting, with some very interesting encounters. If you are not at least a little receptive for positive experiences, you will probably miss them.
You say about yourself that you are an agnostic. I searched on my long hike not only my inner self, but also God. Is there something connecting us all? Something bigger? What do you feel when in the wilderness you meet plants, animals or people?
I certainly think that some things do not happen purely by chance and I hope there is some sort of karma. Apart from that, I have not formed an opinion on that matter. As an agnostic, I am generally open-minded.
hike the land of israel, 3. auflage, saar/ henkinSighting animals has been a constant source of utmost joy. As a birdwatching enthusiast, I took good notice of everything. Although I did not compile an exact list on this trip – the main focus was hiking – I was always very excited when meeting my favourite species, e.g. one of the countless Chukar partridges. At Mt. Tabor I had my first sighting of a Eurasian griffon, ever!
Also for the first time, I encountered a wild chameleon. With the tarantula in Ifat’s tent, the first reaction wasn’t that positive, but in hindsight I feel extremely lucky for having been able to observe such animals. I do not visit zoos, so I am happy having such wildlife encounters. It is very humbling.
I also enjoyed the rare encounters with other hikers. It is nice being asked every time if I still had enough water with me, although in the end it was me sharing. One hiker I met almost daily, on some occasions we walked together. It was good, knowing someone else is in the vicinity. On days we did not encounter each other, we held contact by text messages. So I never really felt alone out there.
So, humbleness is rather accurate. A few times I asked myself why in all the world I am so privileged as to be able to be there: having by mere coincidence a passport that allows me to travel almost anywhere and even be welcome; being healthy enough; having the time and the finances. Those are all reasons to feel very lucky.
Ein Hode, a village for artists
“Ein Hod is great! A real jewel!” This statement of yours has… got me down! I am an artist, and if there ever was anything I really wanted to see, naturally it would be Ein Hod. But apparently, God intended for me to always get completely lost and never find my way there. Maybe another time. What should I expect of Ein Hod, when one day I am there?
Unfortunately, I was there on a monday, when all galeries and museums are closed, so a second visit to Ein Hod is still on my list. Still, I liked it there very much! Very neat, open-air art on every corner, wall paintings, sculptures on the front lawn, small statues being worked into mailboxes, even the standpipes were nicely decorated. Everywhere were things worth a look and if I had had the time, I would surely have stayed one or two days, even though the place itself is tiny.
Despite the galleries being closed, the whole village was breathing creativity, something even I noticed, although I am usually only interested in street arts. Ein Hod is difficult to describe with words, it rather is a feeling, a special atmosphere. To me that came as a surprise, I had never heard of that place before. Just a small village, but something very special.
Listen to your stomach
Back to the basics: How do you prepare for such a trail? Any advise you would give?
To be honest, I did not really prepare. I am an endurance-trained athlete, or at least I was. Until a knee injury I was running marathon and half-marathon distance and scored some first places at 5 and 10 km runs. That I sadly can’t do anymore, but I still do my daily rounds. Does that count as preparation? Apart from that, I just bought an one-person tent, the rest of my equipment was already there from a hike on the Kungsleden in Sweden, my only other trail experience, and from my backpacking tours.
Because of that, my sleeping bag was way to warm and my backpack too small, but I can adapt. I read some reports about the Shvil, bought the Saar-book, downloaded the Android app and assumed everything else could be handled along the way.
For the southern part of the Trail, the one leading through the desert, I will certainly employ a less easy-going attitude, especially concerning the problems arising in terms of food and water. I only did day-tours to the desert, e.g. Timna park, but even for those few hours I needed enormous amounts of water. There, good preparation is vital. In the north with its mediterranean climate, my experience is that you can just start hiking.
Regarding more specialized advice: Mark down the water-refill opportunities from the app in the Saar-book in advance. That saves some battery in the field, as you don’t have to turn on your phone to find water. The book itself does not contain all the refill spots, not even in the newest edition, as they are changing all the time.
I had the feeling that saying the magic words “Shvil Israel” sometimes granted me certain privileges. I once was allowed to camp in a national park, which usually is forbidden, but was necessary for me because I dallied in favour of the art in Ein Hod. In november dusk sets in around 4 to 5 PM. So, I was allowed to stay over night in front of the park rangers’ station. When there is something at stake, subtly mention you are on The Trail. That often helped.
Apart from that, as mentioned before: Listen to your stomach and try to distinct healthy suspicion from unnecessary panicking. Only once I had had the feeling I was in an uncomfortable situation and I just grabbed my things and ran off, despite the fact I was already preparing my spot for the night. The additional kilometres, covered way too fast, I felt in my joints for the following two days, but when the stomach talks, listen.
In any case, never ignore such a feeling just because you are afraid to appear impolite. In the Middle-East communication is usually rather straight, so don’t worry about that.
What remains of the trail? Did it change you? What of it will you keep in your life?
Anticipation of the southern part!
I am a jolly person. After my Israel Trail I sometimes fell into a deep hole. I won much and deeply questioned other things. Did the trail change you?
No, but it has strenghtened my personal connection to the country. Despite a lot of brooding, I still do not know what nature that connection is of. Maybe I gain that insight in the desert.
May I ask about your age?
On the Israel Trail, everyone can reach his own gnosis
Personally I cannot imagine living vegan. On the other hand, I refuse my daily surroundings more and more. Conveniance food, fast food, big business, everything insocial. In the silence of the trail I did a great deal of thinking. Can a person make the world better? And where to start?
First of all, I have to emphasize I personally like to eat fast food and other unhealthy things, as long as they are cruelty-free. I am vegan because of ethical reasons, not health concerns. One day on the Shvil I ate a whole Vienetta ice cream cake, because the parve-version is accidentally vegan, but not available in Germany. I felt sick afterwards, but it was worth it! So I do certainly not live 100 percent healthy, more 80% (well, maybe 70%).
So, regarding your question about making the world better: Where to start? Easy, just start at your own life. Question your consumption and, this is important, consequently adjust it. Get informed where products you always took for granted really come from, wether they are really necessary, what the consequences of consuming them are and if you are willing to take responsibility for these consequences. When so many other living beings are affected by my decisions, my choices are no longer a question of personal preference!
I would feel really bad and think it completely out of the question to consumpt on the back of other people and animals where alternatives without such, or with less severe, consequences are available. I do not want to be part of a deeply exploiting system. I do not want people in other countries to starve because their grains are used as feeding stuff in industrialized nations and therefore are converted very inefficiently, just so I can have a steak I really don’t need to have in a 21st century developed country. I also do not want more and more rain forest in South America to be destroyed in favour of soy plantations which mainly produce animal feed. I don’t want to leave following generations a barren planet, that would be egoistic.
I do not want to have a part in cows being forcefully impregnated and then robbed of their calves, just to drink their mother’s milk. I am a grown-up homo sapiens, I do not need a cow’s mother’s milk. I also don’t need anyone’s skin, feathers or fur. I do not live in a cave and I am privileged to have access to alternatives in terms of food, clothing and cosmetic products, not containing dead animals or their body fluids. I just don’t want to be part of all that, I deeply despise it and I think it’s great that there are ways to avoid supporting such practices! I had no trouble finding leather-free hiking footwear from a well-established brand suiting my needs.
Flying, of course, is a luxury and weighs heavy on my CO2 balance. Probably there are quite a few people refraining from it because of the emissions. I know a vegan activist who currently travels around the globe by bicycle and made it to Thailand without using an airplane. Every vegan defines his own comfort zone in that regard, and contrary to popular belief, no “vegan police” appears to lock you up just because you lost your heart to a country that is no easily accessible over land.
So, in regard to your question, that would be my tiny part in making the world a better place, although I would probably term it differently. This is how I feel comfortable. Anyway, doing nothing certainly achieves, well, nothing and for me the current state is no option. In the end, I just try to meet my own morale standards, and only my own. Part of that is always reflecting on them. I assume living ethically correct in every single aspect is close to impossible, but everyone can make an effort to achieve the best result possible for him and constantly improve on it. There is that song of that punk rock band, saying: “It is not your fault the world is as it is, but it would be your fault if it stayed that way.” So, always start with yourself.
Something that really made me happy is that the other hiker I met almost daily send me a message saying he would try to do the last 400 km to Eilat as a vegetarian, as his personal experiment. I have no idea how he reached that decision, I had no part in that and the topic only came up because we sometimes shared our food and, naturally, I rejected his beef jerky. He had probably thought about that before, as he was familiar with some vegan athletes, e.g. my running idol Scott Jurek.
Are you a little bit proud of yourself and your hike?
I was really happy when I hitch-hiked back to Tel Aviv after 540 km of hiking, and I rewarded myself with ice cream and pizza. But I think ‘pride’ would not be the right expression, because I did not really struggle for it. It felt like my participation in the Hamburg marathon, when I was so well prepared and trained that the marathon itself was easy. After I finished I asked myself wether I had reason to be proud for quite some time. Those who finish aching and wounded have a lot more reason for pride, I just did some running and finished. And now I did that again. I can be somewhat dull on those occasions and probably just got lucky. I’m not sure if that grants me the right to be feel pride. Maybe I just have to do something about my perception, I really don’t know.
What would you tell a guy who is unsure about going this trail himself?
Just do it. Otherwise, you will never know what wonderful encounters the trail has in stock for you. Just do it. The world isn’t that bad.
And a girl?
The very same. And every other person aswell. Near Netanya I took a photo of some art which said “If you can dream it, you can do it!”
Going for yourself changes your own world! I thank you for this wonderful interview!
“It is true that very few women hike the INT alone. But other than that there are many
young women doing the shvil in groups.
It is not related to Arab villages at all. There are no insecure Arab villages along the trail at all.
I truly hope that this issue is solved. I’m more concerned about lack of facilities and garbage
on the INT.
I’d say that when we have 50,000 hikers / year half of them will be women. I hope I live long enough
to see that happen …. …..”
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